The original Andy Taylor had a tiny mean streak in The Andy Griffith Show pilot
Meet Andy Taylor for the first time all over again.
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"You picked the wrong guy to mess with this time, Clem!" That's what Danny Thomas shouts at Andy Griffith the moment before we first meet Andy Taylor in the pilot of The Andy Griffith Show. The camera pans and we see a familiar Mayberry squad car, with an even more familiar face behind the wheel. The now-iconic TV sheriff steps out from his car and smiles warmly at Danny Thomas' character Danny Williams. He says simply, "Name ain't Clem. It's Andy Taylor."
"Danny Meets Andy Griffith" aired in the seventh season of Danny Thomas' hit sitcom Make Room for Daddy. It was almost spring then, but that same year, The Andy Griffith Show premiered in the fall. Between the two dates, the character of Andy Taylor would change a lot more than you might suspect to become the straight and moral leader that Mayberry fans know and love.
The premise of the episode is this: Danny Williams is in a hurry to get back to New York for an interview on a big TV show. That's why he blows right through a stop sign in the sleepy town of Mayberry that he happens to be passing through. Andy pulls him over, and Danny insists on bringing his case before the justice of the peace? Why? Well, part of it has to do with the funny circumstance that the stop sign he drove through marked an intersection between the road he was on and a road that had not yet been built. The other part of it was that he thought that hayseed Andy Taylor had a lousy attitude. Williams wanted to get Andy in trouble, because in his view, Andy was showing a tiny mean streak that would likely shock fans of The Andy Griffith Show.
In fact, Danny curses Andy as a "rotten apple" and "imitation Wyatt Earp." This happens after Andy reveals that he is also the justice of the peace and the newspaper editor, then tells Danny that the typical fine for driving through a stop sign is $5, but after seeing a wad of cash Danny pulls from his pocket, Andy ups the fine to $100 or 10 days in jail. Channeling Ernest T. Bass, Andy says to Danny, "Oo-ee that’s quite a roll you got there.”
On The Andy Griffith Show, Andy may tease folks, but he's always good-natured, and on the pilot shown on Danny Thomas' show, this balance had clearly not yet been struck. It also likely helped to flesh out Andy's nature once the character of Barney Fife was introduced as a comedic counter. In the pilot, it's a rare chance to see a little bit of Barney's rashness leak into Andy, who at one point refutes Danny's assertion that Andy couldn't be a fair judge of himself, saying, "Who better than me" to judge whether that “fine, tall, good-looking sheriff of ours really does tell the truth?”
You hardly ever hear Andy Taylor speak with that much bite on The Andy Griffith Show (although he does get a little snippy with Aunt Bee in later seasons), but what's more, Andy Griffith intentionally evolved his show to distance itself from the punchline-driven writing of early sitcoms like Make Room for Daddy. It was possibly this intuition of Griffith's that allowed the characters to come across so true - because nobody was forced to deliver a punchline for a laugh that accidentally knocks them out of line with their established personality.
But Andy Taylor's nature isn't the only way the pilot of The Andy Griffith Show differs from the eventual hit series. The pilot offers an alternative character to Mayberry town drunk Otis Smith in Will Hoople, and when Danny Williams is critical of Mayberry's dumpy jail cell, Andy cites his Aunt Lucy who keeps the cell nice and tidy. If Andy did have an Aunt Lucy, she's never mentioned in the series, let alone ever made to clean the cell that Otis practically lives in.
Toward the end of the pilot, Frances Bavier plays a character named Henrietta Perkins. Henrietta is being scammed by a businessman who rented her a suit to bury her husband in, then charged her rent every day since they put him in the ground. If this joke rings darker than anything you saw on The Andy Griffith Show, you begin to see more of the unusual vibe the pilot offers, should you get a chance to see it.
There is one aspect of The Andy Griffith Show that the pilot episode nailed on the first try, though, and that's the father-son dynamic of Andy and Opie. Our first look at little Opie comes in the pilot when he bursts into the jail in tears, crying, "Paw" like you'd expect. Opie's upset because his pet turtle has been stepped on by a woman in town, in what Andy deems an accident, but what Opie deems a murder. With tears on his face, Opie demands of Andy, “I want you to arrest her, Paw!”
This is when Andy teaches Opie his very first lesson: “We have to learn with our sorrows, boy.” Then he has a heart-to-heart with his boy, telling how he got through the passing of Opie's mom. The tension of this fragile moment is broken by a dark joke delivered by Opie, "Who stepped on mom?” The laugh track sounds, but when The Andy Griffith Show was ready to return to this subject matter in the excellent episode "Opie the Birdman," it's handled with more delicacy in what fans would detect as the heart-woven Mayberry way.
What's great about the pilot of The Andy Griffith Show is that it gives us our first look at rough drafts of characters whose integrity time has tested for decades now. So even though these early ideas jived more with the guffaw-driven humor of Make Room for Daddy than with The Andy Griffith Show's more character-driven chuckles, it's a testament to how everything came together in just the right way to make The Andy Griffith Show the singular entity in TV history that it remains today.
At the end of the pilot, Andy explains to Danny that he wasn't trying to be mean, anyway. He simply thinks that people who are better off in life have a duty to make a finer example for those who have more struggles. In short, the wealthy city types shouldn't expect different treatment than the sorts of folks inclined to call Mayberry home. "I was just trying to slow Mr. Williams down a little bit," Andy explains in the episode before shaking Danny Williams' hand (but still upholding his original fine). Then Danny Williams literally tips his hat and places it on Andy's head, passing the torch from one titan of television to another.